On September 6, hurricane Irma devastated the US and British Virgin Islands as well as Barbuda and St. Martin. Irma was forecast to come awfully close to the VI several days before. Looking at the projected storm path, I felt a pit in my stomach. Chuck and I discussed our options for saving Jolly Mon. Hurricane Hole in St. John? The crowded lagoon of Brenner Bay? Culebra? Stay in Long Bay? A chance encounter with a friend gave Chuck another idea. Jolly Mon draws 7′ so getting her into the lagoon is difficult. Hurricane Hole is too far away. Same with Culebra. Long Bay is unprotected. The weather reports said Irma would turn northwest. But everyone could feel that wasn’t the case. The atmosphere on the islands changed. The panic was palpable. Chuck talked to a friend about it and the friend suggested a small cove behind the airport runway. It is 10′ deep up to the mangroves. Five days before Irma, we went to check it out and found that the rumor was true. The cove was 10′ deep up to the mangroves and no one else was there (the lagoon was already filling fast). Sunday before Irma, we pulled Jolly Mon nose first into the mangroves and put out every anchor we had, one off of the bow and three big ones off of the back. Then we spider-webbed line into the mangrove trees. We spent the night aboard and began packing to go stay at the concrete house of our friends. Knowing Irma was coming, paralysis set in. It was hard to pack because anything left behind could be gone forever. But in only a few days, there isn’t enough time or room to move everything. The process of letting go had to start before the storm even hit. We felt lucky to have found a good spot for our boat and a place to ride out the storm with our kids and pet chicken. Monday morning, we found why it was such a good spot. It belongs to the University of the Virgin Islands for their boats. Paul and Steve of the marine sciences program were kind enough to let us stay (Thank you, Paul and Steve!!). They put away their small powerboat and one sailboat in the same area. We left our boat Monday. The pit was still in my stomach as we loaded into the dinghy and I told her to be good. I left a photo of my Granny in my locker so she could watch over the boat.
Monday and Tuesday was spent getting our friends’ house prepared for Irma. They took in several people and families who either lived on boats or in rickety structures (Thank you, Kim and Doug!!). By Wednesday we had 17 people (including 4 children under age 8), two dogs, a cat, and a chicken in a concrete house 35′ up a cliff facing the Caribbean Sea. I’m claustrophobic and didn’t like the idea of the house being closed up with no escape. I spent much of the morning curled in a ball waiting for the inevitable, obsessively checking the weather. The storm was forecast to turn but with each update, the turn wasn’t happening. Irma was plodding along in a direct line, her wind speeds clocking upwards, upwards, 180 mph, 185 mph, 200 mph. Sustained. I couldn’t imagine what 200 mph winds even looked like. I kept busy in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning, trying to not think about the coming storm. I called my son Zane in the states to tell him that I loved him. I talked to my sister. Both could hear the fear in my voice. There was no way to avoid what was coming. Flights out were sold out, the last ticket rumored to have sold for over $6000. The winds began building and we watched the waves crashing on the beach below. The waves were enormous and a sick color green, not the beautiful blue they normally are. Chuck taped a GoPro type camera on the deck railing to capture the hurricane in a time lapse.
We took one last look out of the door to the porch and then closed up. I went to clean dishes, but as the eyewall approached, the house generator failed. WAPA (Water and Power Authority) had cut power earlier in the storm to protect people from getting electrocuted by fallen lines. The house went dark with all the windows shuttered. The sick feeling in my stomach returned as the wind roared outside. It was just about noon. We worried about the waves outside and what to do if the roof came off or the waves came up. Some of the worst of the storm would be coming from the south, the direction the house faced. Before the power went, I had messaged a friend on Facebook to see if we needed to evacuate, would the villa up the road be available, was it safe, was anyone there. She was vacationing in Iceland and called me right away. The person watching the villa was having phone issues. There was no way to contact him, especially since phone service went down. We had wifi, though, for a little bit, until the generator went. The darkened house made the sounds coming from outside even more ominous. Panic seized me and I wanted to go be by myself so I found a dark corner upstairs and got in it. The wind screamed outside and the house creaked. The glass windows were flexing in their frames. The wind was so strong it was whistling up the sink drains. My friend found me hiding and insisted that we all hide together. 17 people, two dogs, a cat, and a chicken piled into a bathroom as the pressure dropped and dropped. My ears kept popping. We all brought furniture cushions to hide under in case the roof pulled off. I took my kids and went in the walk-in closet with the chicken and sat on the floor hugging my daughter. Chuck had been all business during the storm. He kept checking windows and doors and supervising the kids. The wind outside started to scream. Blasts of wind buffeted the house and the pressure dropped again. Silence for a second and then a massive WHAM from wind jolting the house. The roof was creaking and pulling upwards. The house began to shake and again a harder blast of wind. It didn’t seem to stop. In the bedroom, the shuttered glass doors burst open and the storm came in through the cracks in the shutter. The wind was so strong, it took 3 guys to try to shut the doors. They pushed a large mahogany bed against the doors but the wind shoved the bed back. Beau broke some furniture to get some wood to close the doors. They had to drill the doors shut and leave the bed against them. Chuck came to check on us in the closet and for the first time, I saw fear on his face and tears in his eyes. It sounded like the waves were hitting the house. I held my daughter tight as the pressure dropped again. Nick put on music and the “You Are My Sunshine” song started playing. I’m sitting in a closet, pretty sure we are all about to die, and these people started singing along to the song. I sang, too, but I was really pissed that I was looking at dying in a closet while everyone is singing “You Are My Sunshine”. Not how I wanted my life to end.
After what seemed like hours, the pressure stopped dropping. The wind had slightly changed direction but was still coming from the sea. What we thought were waves hitting the house was actually the wind slicing the tops of the waves off and flinging them at the house. We moved back out to the living room. The littler kids seemed to not notice the outstanding racket outside. The big picture window bowed with each wind gust. I reached a point of not being afraid. Irma shoved water under the doors, through any crack or crevice. The entire living room soon had the floor covered with an inch to two inches of water. The kids thought it was fun, but we scrambled to get things up off of the floor. After several hours, the winds calmed enough to open the doors. First we looked out into the dark of the back yard. Shining my flashlight toward the beach, all of the palm trees were either snapped or frond-less. Looking up the hill, ghostly figures of naked trees stared back. All of their leaves were on the ground, blown away. When we opened the front door at 10 pm, we found that Irma had dropped someone’s roof inches from my car, put a nail in the bumper of Beau’s car, broken car windows, and ripped up large bushes and dumped them in the driveway. Every telephone pole was either down or bent. Debris was everywhere. More roof up the hill, a bigger piece from a house over 100 yards away. I was nearly delirious to begin with from not eating or sleeping well the days previous, but now faced with this new world and the fact that we survived was completely overwhelming. Did many people survive this? What did the rest of the island look like?
In the morning, we got answers. The rumor mill had the hospital destroyed, Frenchtown leveled, St. John unaccounted for. One AM station broadcasting out of St. Croix fielded phone calls from people who had little idea what had actually happened here. Communication was cut off.